MEMORIES OF WALT’S PLACE: SALUTING A MASTER OF MAGIC KINGDOMS
The best way to appreciate the 30th Anniversary of Disneyland is to try to imagine what America would be like if Walt Disney had never been born.
For starters, there would be no Disneyland, no Disney World, no Epcot, no Mickey Mouse, no “Fantasia.”
While you’re at it, you might as well punch a hole in the Universe.
But because of Disneyland, the first American monorail was built. Because of Disneyland, the People Mover was invented and fixed in place. Because of Disneyland the look, color, texture and life in hundreds, and eventually thousands of our cities and towns will never be the same. Which is to say, improved.
How dare I claim all this?
Because Walt Disney was Queen Victoria’s nephew and Mark Twain’s All American Time-Traveling Innocent Abroad son.
He shipped off to London, Paris, Rome, and Mad Otto of Bavaria’s castle, got homesick, came home. Only to be homesick for Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, Chambord, the spires of Viollet-le-Duc on top of Notre Dame, plus Mad Otto and all the lush gardens of Le Notre and the remembrance of five million people a night seated outside in the cafes of France.
He stared around at America, found it mesa-flat and wonderless, said to himself: If not now, when? If not here, where? If not me, who? And proceeded to airlift all those collisions with culture and time and place, so as to seed them in Anaheim.
Like the Victorians, he gave us gifts of far places, great castles, streets to be happily lost in.
There weren’t enough gardens in America? He planted them. There weren’t enough benches for people-watching? He forged them. Beauty was lacking? He blueprinted it. There weren’t enough varieties of ways to travel? He offered us choices of eight or nine modes of transportation. And don’t forget the carrousel.
His secret was that he lived in our behalf. It wasn’t enough that he loved what he had seen in his travels. He wanted us to share it, too.
So he did what the Victorians did. They sailed to far places, saw that it was better than home, and stashed duplicates of all the world’s greatest sculptures and ticketed them home. The result of their loving and caring can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum to this day. That place could easily have been the place where Disney was born, or reborn.
So the gawking American art student, stunned by foreign architecture, favored us with delights transported. Even that damned wonderful Viollet-le-Duc spire shoves its porcupine nose at the sky above Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, just this side of Santa Ana.
And from all this, what?
Disneyland was the first American Mall, of course. Or the first new one, anyway. Influenced by concepts as old as the folks eating on the Acropolis steps, Disney started what is now a flood tide of malls covering our 50 states. You say you don’t like malls? There’s nothing wrong with most of them that Walt couldn’t have cured in five minutes with a great scowl and a red pencil.
He was, in sum, the master of the obvious fact and the just as obvious solution. It was obvious to Walt, some 20 years ago, that it was dumb to put up a billion-dollar World’s Fair one year, and tear it down the next. Why not, he said, put up a permanent World’s Fair, and every few years tear down the ideas inside, and redecorate? Everyone had thought about that dumb problem for years. Walt gave us the smart answer: EPCOT. Which will be around influencing generations long after we colonize Mars.
He was not an architect, city planner, horticulturalist, transportation engineer or even a very good cartoonist, but he knew how to choose and surround himself with resident genies. I have heard his name on the lips of most of the prominent city shakers and movers for the last 10 years. Jon Jerde, who designed the Glendale Galleria, the Westside Pavilion, and is now re-creating downtown San Diego, admits his debt to good old wandering Uncle Walt. His other children are such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and many of the other young directors and producers who have changed cinema today.
My first encounter with the Magic Kingdom was with Charles Laughton, the fabulous actor, who took over one of the Jungle Ride boats and turned into Captain Bligh.
But my best memory was of a lunch one day back in 1965. Knowing that Walt had an incredibly busy schedule, I leaped up from the soup and sandwiches after an hour, thanked him, headed for the door.
“Wait!” said Walt. He pointed out the window at the Mad Otto workshops and Violett-le-Duc factories. “There’s something I want to show you!”
How could I refuse?